Science Fiction Studies

#42 = Volume 14, Part 2 = July 1987

Kathleen L. Spencer

Vintage Delany

Samuel R. Delany. Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Pleasantville, NY: Dragon Press, 1984. 244pp. $30.00.

The essays collected in Starboard Wine confirm what many of us had already begun to believe: the most significant contemporary theorist of SF is Samuel Delany. He brings to this critical endeavor a unique triad of qualifications: a sophisticated understanding of modern literary theory; 25 years of experience grappling with the practical problems of writing SF texts; and an insider's knowledge of the history of SF both as a genre of fiction and as a small intense community of writers, readers, and editors. All of Delany's criticism demonstrates the value of this combination, but the new collection (essays originally written between 1977 and 1980) represents an advance over his earlier work. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, his first collection of essays on SF language, and The American Shore, his exhaustive examination of Thomas Disch's "Angouleme," contain numerous inspired observations on the way SF texts work; but those observations are often couched in language of intimidating technicality and polysyllabification. The essays in Starboard Wine show no signs of this fascination with jargon. Over the years, Delany's language has distilled into a lucidity that, in making his ideas more accessible, also reveals more clearly their value and power. Second, while he continues to be concerned with the language of SF, with the semantic and syntactical features that characterize the genre, in this new collection he consistently addresses larger questions concerning critical approaches to SF and the relationship of SF to other literary genres. This is not to say the Starboard Wine is a unified and systematic statement of Delany's theories: it is a collection of essays written over a number of years for a variety of occasions and audiences, and as such it contains a certain amount of repetition and fragmentation, in which discussion of a single idea or closely related ideas may be scattered throughout numerous essays rather than developed all in one place. But in the absence of Delany's yet-to-be-written systematic study of SF, Starboard Wine is the most stimulating and clear-minded criticism of the genre currently available.

Four major themes emerge from the essays: (1) that SF can most productively be described and taught not as a collection of themes but as a series of reading protocols, of instructions to readers about how to make sense of the sentences in SF texts; (2) that where mundane fiction attempts to represent the world, SF's relation to the world of the present is "one of dialogic, contestatory, agonistic creativity"; that is, the function of SF is to create "a significant distortion of the present that sets up a rich and complex dialogue with the reader's here and now" (p. 177); (3) that SF criticism will be of little value unless and until it is informed by the history of the genre, both of its texts (as exchanges in an ongoing dialogue) and of its social contexts: market factors, the influence of fandom and its extensive networks of informal criticism, the central role of magazine editors, and the interactions of the writers with each other; and--what is perhaps his most important theme--(4) that SF, as a genre of what he calls "paraliterature," is fundamentally different from literature, has a different history, different modes of production, different values, and a different relation to the world of the reader, and for these reasons must be analyzed in its own terms rather than in those appropriate to "literature."

This final point Delany recognizes as his most controversial, one likely to be rejected by two different constituencies: academic critics, who, in an attempt to win acceptance for SF in traditional scholarly circles, have spent years arguing that SF is literature; and a group of other SF writers who hear in his argument the shrill voices from inside the ghetto of '30s' and '40s' fandom insisting that SF is the only literature worth reading, that it is a privileged genre which must be judged only by its own internal standards. To the latter group (being sensitive to the historical roots of their reaction), Delany respectfully points out that, unlike those earlier voices, he is neither anti-intellectual nor contemptuous of literature other than SF; he is merely insisting on a fundamental difference between the two. To address the concerns of the former group, he summons a more complex and multifaceted argument, spread throughout many of the essays, most notably in "Some Presumptuous Approaches to Science Fiction," "Science Fiction and 'Literature'--or, the Conscience of the King," "Russ," "Disch," "Dichtung und Science Fiction," and "Reflections on Historical Models" (the last of which was originally published in SFS).

His argument rests primarily on two points: first, that the history of SF (in particular of its mode of production) and its dominant aesthetic values are so utterly different from the history and values of "literature" that to equate the two leads inevitably to the judgment that SF is "second-rate literature." Literature (Delany argues, following Foucault) privileges the concept of the author and of textual unity (consistency in and between the works of a given author) in style, theoretical/philosophical position, historical context, and level of achievement, so that discrepancies on such matters in any work (or part of a work) which cannot be explained by reference to such principles as evolution, maturation, or influence may lead the work or section to be rejected as inauthentic. By contrast, SF privileges the concept of the story over that of the author, and rather than valuing stylistic, conceptual, and historical unity, prizes plurality in all these matters, not so much within any given text as over the range of a writer's productions, and particularly in the body of texts that constitute SF. One of the central concerns of SF as a genre, Delany argues, is precisely to suggest a wide range of possible futures, in dialogue with each other and with the given world of the present. Thus to judge SF texts by the traditional literary standards of unity is not only inevitably to find them wanting, but in fact to miss the very point they are most concerned with making.

The second crucial difference between SF and literature is that, where the latter (at least in the last 200 years) focuses its attention upon the subject, the sensibility of the character or author, the former emphasizes the object, the exterior world. As a result, we interpret the two sorts of texts according to two very different sets of assumptions.

Because the world of mundane fiction is fixed, at least in comparison with the multiple worlds of science fiction, when we read some distortion in the representation of the world in a piece of mundane fiction we are led to the questions, Why did the character (the fictive subject) perceive it this way? or Why did the writer (the auctorial subject) present it this way? (p. 145)

By contrast, because of SF's characteristic focus upon the object world, when we encounter a detail which differs dramatically from our ordinary present, we ask instead, "How would the world of the story have to be different from our world in order for this to occur? " (p. 146)

Science fiction is far more concerned with the organization (and reorganization) of the object, i.e., the world, or the institutions through which we perceive it. It is concerned with the subject, certainly, but concerned with those aspects of it that are closer to the object: How is the subject excited, impinged on, contoured and constituted by the object? How might beings with a different social organization, environment, brain structure, and body perceive things? How might humans perceive things after becoming acclimated to an alien environment? (p. 188)

In an SF story, then, the most passing reference to cultural changes--as in one of Delany's favorite examples, a line (from a Larry Niven story) about the "monopole-magnet mining operations in the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cygni"--functions first as "a simple way of saying that, while the concept of mines may persist, their objects, their organization, their technology, their locations, and their very form can change--and it says it distinctly and clearly and well before it offers any metaphor for any psychic mystery or psychological state" (p. 188).

In and around his discussions of this major contention, Delany calls on his knowledge of the SF community to make one of his other points--the relevance of genre history to certain kinds of critical questions, the kinds of questions that academic criticism, in its general ignorance of this history, tends either not to raise at all or to answer inaccurately. He ranges knowledgeably over the careers of writers as diverse as Heinlein, Sturgeon, Bester, Russ, and Disch, placing them in their proper historical contexts; offers a reinterpretation of the "New Wave/Old Wave" controversy of the '70s; and ends by criticizing the available historical models of 20th-century SF and proposing an alternate model of his own, based on his understanding of the genre's developmental stages in the last 70 years.

Although not a systematic study, then, Starboard Wine, like Delany's earlier criticism, succeeds splendidly in identifying key issues, making provocative observations, and outlining promising projects. For myself, I find his distinction between SF and literature, and his consequent argument that we need to develop a different critical vocabulary appropriate to SF, as persuasive as it is intriguing. I also am convinced by his call for good critical histories of the genre, both textual and social. Alas, the realities of academic life do not promise well for the acceptance of the one project or the completion of the other. Most academic critics of SF, out of a healthy sense of self-preservation, are still forced to do their SF scholarship with the left hand, so to speak--as a hobby, as an eccentric, slightly contemptible but harmless vacation from their "real" work in Victorian or Medieval or Modern American literature, knowing that publications in SF will do little to get them jobs or tenure or promotion and may even work against them. Under such circumstances, it will be hard for any academic to spare the time for the extensive reading necessary to produce the kind of history Delany proposes; and even critics who find his argument about SF as paraliterature convincing may feel that adopting that position publicly would threaten the marginal academic respectability SF criticism has recently gained.

On the other hand, perhaps a rigorously historical/structural analysis of the genre along the lines Delany proposes might win at least a grudging respect from some of our more traditionally-minded colleagues. One can at least hope. And whether the scheme turns out to be practicable or not, I'm convinced that in Starboard Wine, Delany has sketched out some highly productive approaches for SF criticism to take.

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